Sunday, April 1, 2012

Option for 4-4, 2-2 at Trinity

This post is rather specific to teaching at Trinity, but it has elements that might interest others in higher education,. Plus I figure that many of the people who see my posts are former students who might at least find this interesting, and might even want to provide feedback. Warning, this post contains a few of my opinions that might not make me popular on certain parts of campus. I would suggest that instead of getting offended, a reader who disagrees should try to turn that energy into comments that can lead to constructive discussion. Present why you disagree and elaborate. I typically find that I learn most about things when I can have reasoned discussions with people who have very different viewpoints. It makes me think outside of my comfort zone.

Currently Trinity has a teaching load of 9 contact hours/semester and as most classes are 3-hour courses, this leads to what we call the 3-3 teaching load. In addition, students take roughly 5 courses each semester of these 3-hour courses. A number of faculty have pushed for going to a 4-4 course load where students take only 4 courses each semester. To make this work those courses should be 4 contact hours each. (Note that apparently some schools had been basically cheating on this and newer laws make it so that such courses must be 4-hour courses. The schools doing this were often considered good schools that rank highly, which is why they are often cited in discussions.)

The goals of such a change are two fold. First, students are not as spread thin and distracted by so many different topics. Second, faculty can have fewer preps because fewer courses need to be offered. Both can be valid arguments, though I'm not sure I buy either one. For the first one, the reality is that students at Trinity have lots of time to pursue fun activities. Even those taking 18+ hours can generally participate in a fair number of hours each week of various recreational activities. If faculty find that students aren't focused enough on their course, perhaps the faculty need to work on making their courses harder so students have to focus.

As for the faculty, my message is similar. I regularly do overloads above a 3-3. I still find time to do my research, write a 900 page textbook, and do things with my wife and kids. I also have students coming by not only for office hours to get help, but just to shoot the shit and talk about cool stuff. Would I enjoy having less work to do? Perhaps, though as most of my work is self-inflicted, that is a position that might be hard to argue for. However, the reality is that the world is a competitive place and it is only getting more so. For students who don't want to lose their social time I point to Occupy protesters who have degrees and no jobs. You need to be better than them. For faculty, my future post on the "Education Bubble" will hopefully make it clear why I think we need to be working our butts off to make sure our entire institution is still relevant in 20 years. Asking for higher wages and lower teaching loads feels to me like a step in the wrong direction. Instead, I think we need to try to move toward having extremely low tuition and the ability to "live" off of little more than the endowment.

The division on support of the 4-4 seems to be reasonably clear through departments. Departments in STEM (along with Business and Music), which have a lot of hours in their graduation requirements say it isn't feasible. Departments in the humanities and the social sciences with under 40 hours of requirements typically like it. Computer Science is a big major and we barely staff things as is. We also wish we could add more courses to the major, not fewer. You can tell from this where I stand.

Having said all of that, I do have an idea for those who really want to go 4-4.

A Simple Proposal
Seriously, this isn't rocket science. If your department wants to go 4-4, do it. Start teaching 4 hour courses. The normal teaching load will be two four hour courses. Every so often you throw in something else so you have an average of 9 contact hours. (Maymester and the like would help with that last part.)

The only problem with doing this today is that Trinity's class schedule does not support it. We have blocks of time set up for 3-hour courses. So the second part of this proposal is a change in the time blocks. Right now we have 15 normal time blocks with 9 MWF/MW and 6 TR. Here are two alternatives. In both of these the blocks are changed to 4-hours, but I expect many 3-hour courses will still be taught. They just leave a bit more free time between sections.

First, to please the faculty who would like to have a day set aside for things like outside speakers, we do MR and TF with blocks of 8:00-9:45, 10:00-11:45, 12:00-1:45, 2:00-3:45, 4:00-5:45, and so on. Most courses will use these blocks. This leaves Wednesday completely open. Unfortunately, there are only 10 time blocks before 6pm instead of the current 15. That is probably too big a drop for the scheduling to work out, but maybe I'm wrong and it could happen. It could be modified so that Wednesday we allow 3-hour courses until noon. That way there could be MWF courses at 8:00-8:50, 9:00-9:50, 10:00-10:50, and 11:00-11:50 that only allow 3-hour courses. That could cause scheduling nightmares, but it might be enough to make this work, and I have great faith in technology when it comes to scheduling. Computer programs should be building University wide schedules IMO. The way we do it today is silly.

The alternative does not leave Wednesday free at all and looks more like our current schedule. You have TR blocks like those from above on 2-hour increments. You have MWF blocks that have students in class 1:10 each day with 10-minute breaks. 8:00-9:10, 9:20-10:30, 10:40-11:50, 1:00-2:10, 2:20-3:30, 3:40-4:50. (The last two could be modified to MW only to preserve Friday afternoon meeting times.) These six blocks, plus the five from TR give 11 blocks to play with. I still don't know if that will be enough. Going to 4-4 only reduces course offerings by 20-25% even if fully adopted. I am not pushing for complete adoption here. Whether 60% adoption would be sufficient to make the schedule work is not clear to me.

They Better Really be 4-hour Courses
One argument that I have heard for the 4-4 was that students in courses from the humanities and social sciences often need more time to dedicate to a class. I am extremely skeptical of this as my experience is that students wind up spending more time on science and math courses than just about anything else. However, the argument was that when a student gets pressed for time, they skip the reading in the humanities course and do the assignment in the science/math course because they might be able to get by without having done the reading, but they can't get by without turning in something. There might be some truth to that. However, if that is the reason, I don't see the 4-4 being a fix, I see the 4-4 being a path for students to spend less time on academics and more time playing.

If departments do adopt a 4-4, I feel there has to be extreme pressure on the departments and faculty who go that direction to make sure that their courses truly are rigorous enough to warrant four hours of credit.

What do you think? Should Trinity go 4-4? What would be the benefits? What are the shortcomings? What will really happen if we make this transition and only 60% of departments start teaching 4-hour courses?